Why are colleges offering free classes?
They don't want to be left behind in the digital revolution that has already transformed the way we consume news, music, and books. Stanford, Duke, Princeton, and Johns Hopkins are among the 16 universities that have partnered with a newly launched company called Coursera to offer more than 100 free online courses this academic year; MIT, Harvard, and the University of California, Berkeley, are following suit through a nonprofit venture called edX. Now people anywhere in the world can take Stanford's "Introduction to Mathematical Thinking," learn the "Principles of Obesity Economics" at Johns Hopkins, or have Duke University behavioral economist Dan Ariely lead them through "A Beginner's Guide to Irrational Behavior"—all without paying the $50,000 usually required to attend these world-class universities. More than 1 million people from scores of countries have already enrolled in the free classes, which some believe could transform the mission and model of higher education. Anant Agarwal, president of edX, calls it "the single biggest change in education since the printing press."
What's in it for colleges?
Prestige now, and possibly profit later. Schools say they're willing to give their product away for free so they don't miss the chance to be among the first to develop new forms of education. "The potential upside for this experiment is so big that it's hard for me to imagine any large research university that wouldn't want to be involved," said Richard DeMillo, director of the Center for 21st Century Universities at Georgia Tech. One day the schools will likely try to make some money, too, possibly by charging students for credits or allowing companies to sponsor courses. But universities recognize that they could be jeopardizing their hard-won reputations and their time-tested business model, said Jason Wingard, a vice dean of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. "You run the risk of potentially diluting your brand."
How do the classes work?
Much like a typical college lecture course, but with an audience in the tens or even hundreds of thousands. At a time of their choosing, students watch videos of lectures by respected professors, and complete interactive quizzes and regular homework to prove they grasp the material. The Web videos incorporate graphics and virtual games, and students can pose questions and debate one another in online discussion groups. Professors say it's thrilling to reach so many students at once, from teenagers in India to baby boomers in Indiana. Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng, a Stanford computer science professor, recently taught an online class to more than 100,000 students. To reach that many people, Ng said, "I would have had to teach my normal Stanford class for 250 years."
Are the classes effective?
Some educators doubt that virtual classes can match the experience of face-to-face learning. Online education "tends to be a monologue and not a real dialogue," said University of Virginia English professor Mark Edmundson. There's also an extremely high attrition rate: Of the 160,000 people who enrolled in a Stanford artificial intelligence course last year, only 23,000 finished the work. But the feedback that could improve these courses is just beginning to roll in, and there's already some evidence that students who stick with online courses learn just as much as those in conventional classes. "This is the Wild West," said Agarwal. "There's a lot of things we have to figure out."
Will this trend make college cheaper?
There are grounds for hope. Since 1985, U.S. college tuition rates and fees have grown by 559 percent. In theory, online courses could cut costs by enabling universities to outsource coursework to the Internet and do away with or share some academic departments. Fewer students would need campus housing and other services. Universities have so far opposed giving credit for free classes, instead conferring certificates that don't count toward a degree. But that's already starting to change, with the University of Washington offering credit for Coursera classes this fall.
Could the web replace universities?
Not anytime soon. "Why do people pay $50,000 a year to attend an institution like Caltech?" Ng said. "The real value is the interactions with professors and other equally bright students." Still, even a remote dose of elite education can have great value to students who have no chance of setting foot on an Ivy League campus. And lessons drawn from the courses could reshape how colleges approach teaching, turning the ability to offer a mix of online and face-to-face learning into the new gold standard for top-notch educators. Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford research professor who offers free online computer science classes, predicts that there will be only 10 higher-education institutions in the world in 50 years. "It's pretty obvious that degrees will go away," he said. "The idea of a degree is that you spend a fixed time right after high school to educate yourself for the rest of your career. But careers change so much over a lifetime now that this model isn't valid anymore." In the future, he says, people will return to college throughout their lives, updating what they know through online courses.
A fresh start for the jobless
Free online courses might have millions of immediate beneficiaries among unemployed workers who need job retraining. Even with a law degree from the University of Chicago, Dennis Cahillane, 29, couldn't get hired. But after taking several free Stanford courses in building databases, he recently landed a job as a programmer for a media website. And now he is planning to work his way through Coursera classes in his spare time until he's earned "the equivalent of a B.A. in computer science from Stanford," he told Fast Company. Andy Rice, who owns a weather forecasting company in Minnesota, says he's heartened when he sees résumés from job applicants listing free courses. "I definitely want to hire people who are always questing for new knowledge," he said. "Life's not about what you learn when you're 22."